This article is adapted from a talk given at Reformation Fellowship on December 22, 2007.
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For children, Christmas can be torture. All those presents are waiting under the tree, but the child must wait two more days to open them. It’s torture. Pure torture. The child anticipates the pure delight that will be his when he finally takes possession of those new toys. But the unfulfilled desire, the obligation to delay gratification, makes waiting torture. Waiting takes an incredible feat of patience and perseverance. Much of Christmas is anticipating joy without actually experiencing it. But Christmas comes. It always comes. And when, finally, the child’s turn to unwrap his presents comes, oh what joy! Yes, Christmas is everything he hoped it would be. What delight! What unspeakable excitement and pleasure!
Now the presents are all unwrapped. The child sits and surveys his loot. It is all new and exciting—for a few sweet moments. But then the blues, the traditional Christmas blues, begin to set in. Once again, the excitement has faded. The joy is gone. The child is filled with an empty, sad feeling. Christmas promised so much, but—in the end—it just didn’t deliver. A few fleeting moments of satisfaction, but—in the end—that was all Christmas was.
One has to be struck by the futility of it all. Christmas is like life, and life is like Christmas. We spend our whole lives anticipating the pleasure and delight that we expect to receive from our pursuits. And we spend our whole lives being disappointed because the delight we thought would result doesn’t.
A young man worked hard at writing a book. It was a best-seller. Everyone thought it was a masterpiece. The young man got fame and wealth. But in his soul, he remained unsatisfied. The happiness he thought publishing his book would bring never came.
A young mother poured herself into her marriage and children. She believed happiness comes from having a happy family, and she did everything she could to nurture her marriage and her children. For a few short years, she was content. Then, the children began to grow into adults. As each became his own person, they grew apart. The children rebelled against everything she believed was real and important; they proved ungrateful, unkind, and uninterested in their mother and what she wanted. Everything the mother had hoped for, everything she had worked for, never materialized. Her family had not brought her happiness; it had brought her grief.
A young woman grew up wanting to play the violin. She practiced conscientiously, worked diligently, and strove to perfect her skill. She became an accomplished violinist and earned first chair in a famous symphony. But she was miserable. Nothing had come of her striving. She had a violin, honor, and an emptiness in her soul.
A young man grew up wanting to play football. He practiced conscientiously, worked diligently, and strove to perfect his skills. He became an accomplished football player and was slated to make the starting lineup as a freshman his next year. Then, a car accident. His leg was injured, and doctors had to amputate his leg. No more football for the rest of his life.
Life is like Christmas; Christmas is like life. The joy, the pleasure, the happiness, and the delight that we seek from the things of life, we don’t ever really get. What I imagine with respect to how happy something will make me is never what I experience in my soul. The reality never measures up to my imagination, which always promises more than real life can deliver.
This is the utter futility of life. This is the true nature of human existence. There is no real Life under the sun. We imagine happiness will come through achieving our goals, we strive to meet those goals with all our strength, we achieve them, we experience emptiness instead of happiness, and then we die. Is that not the way of human existence? Is existence not a state of oppression rather than freedom? Is it not marked more by the burden of grief than by the lightness of joy? The empty sadness of Christmas afternoon is as real and as present a part of Christmas as the joy and delight of Christmas morning. Both are a part of Christmas in this world. Human existence is like that, too. The empty sadness of a soul left unsatisfied is just as real and present as the pleasures and delights that this world offers. Both are a part of life under the sun.
We have only two choices for how to understand such an existence: either God has made human existence to be an utterly absurd existence, or this present human existence was made to resolve itself into something else. If I read my Bible rightly, the latter choice is correct. The existence we have now is not all there is; it is simply the anticipation of something else. Something beyond. Something better. Something less futile. Something substantial. Something full. Something satisfying. Something just right. The something that our hearts yearn for.
Nowhere does the Bible describe the “something beyond” in exactly this way, yet this picture underlies everything the Bible says.
Luke is describing the ultimate destiny of the children of God when he says, “Be glad in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven…” (Luke 6:23, NASB). And again he says, “…love your enemies…and your reward will be great…” [Luke 6:35, NASB].
Paul writes, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints…” [Ephesians 1:18, NASB].
Together, these assertions describe our inheritance as great and richly glorious. But if it is great and richly glorious, will it too fail to be fully satisfying? I think that unlikely. The Bible means to suggest that this rich and glorious future inheritance will finally satisfy our souls. The Apostle Paul writes the two most extended discussions of how wonderful our destiny will be in Romans 8 and I Corinthians 15.
The anxious yearning of the creation eagerly awaits the unveiling of the sons of God. For the creation was made subject to futility—not voluntarily, but because of Him who put it in subjection—with the confident expectation that the creation itself would in fact be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Now we know that the entire created order groans together and is in labor together until now.
Not only this, but also we ourselves—because we have the first fruits of the Spirit—even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly awaiting our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body; for it is in confident anticipation that we have been saved. Now an anticipation that is already being seen is not an “anticipation”—for why would one “anticipate” what he already sees? But if we anticipate something that we do not already see, then with perseverance we eagerly await it.” [Romans 8:19-25, my translation]
Here in Romans 8, Paul speaks to how wonderful our ultimate destiny will be, if we are children of God. Our present sufferings—and presumably those sufferings include the groaning that results from all our disappointment with the futility of our present existence—are not worthy to be measured against the glory that is to be revealed to us in our inheritance in the age of come. The glory that awaits us is so wonderful, so glorious, so fulfilling that the disappointment and sorrow that we must endure now seems trivial by comparison.
In 1 Corinthians 15:35-49, Paul makes a case for a resurrection from the dead. In that argument, Paul compares the nature of our “body” in the age to come with the nature of our physical body now. Their natures are significantly and drastically different, he argues. Like the plain, gnarly seed that goes into the ground and dies in order to give life to a beautiful flowering plant, so the relatively plain and uninteresting physical body that I possess now must die in order to give life to the glorious and beautiful “spiritual body” that I will have in the age to come. Now, presumably, as goes my body, so goes the rest of my experience. If my relatively inferior earthly body will make way for a significantly superior and more glorious heavenly body, then presumably my futile and disappointing earthly existence will make way for a meaningful and substantially rewarding heavenly existence. At least, this is certainly the impression the New Testament leaves.
But notice what is abundantly clear everywhere in the Bible: This reward awaits me! I cannot have it right now. God did not give us our Christmas gift on that first Christmas day two millennia ago. He gave us the promise of a gift but not the gift itself.
The gift that God will one day give to us can be described in a number of different ways:
- He will give us a new day, where existence will be full and rewarding and no longer futile.
- He will give us a Kingdom, where evil, injustice, wickedness, death, despair, and emptiness will no longer exist.
- He will give us joy—not the fading joy we experience now, but the real, unfading joy we yearn for.
- In a word, he will give us Life, true Life, the Life we were created for.
This describes the gift God will give us. But what gift did God give to us miserable human creatures on that first Christmas, that long-ago day that we still commemorate with gifts to one another?
- God did not give us a new day, but He gave us the pre-dawn hope for that new day. Jesus’ birth on that first Christmas did not inaugurate the new day that we all yearn for, but it did signal its coming. Like the pre-sunrise blush in the eastern sky that hints of the coming of a new day, Jesus’ birth, life in Galilee, unjust death, shocking resurrection, and confusing ascension tell us in no uncertain terms that a new day is indeed coming.
- God did not give us the Kingdom, but He gave us concrete evidence that He intends to establish His Kingdom. When the Son was born on that first Christmas, he did not bring the Kingdom of God to earth, but he did reveal himself to be the King who would one day rule in that Kingdom. The King came; so the Kingdom is near.
- God did not give us the righteousness and glory that we so desperately want, but He did give us the image of righteousness and glory that one day will be ours. Jesus is the prototype of the kind of human being we will be recreated to resemble. When Jesus came, He did not heal us of sin and unrighteousness, but He came with the promise that we would one day be healed—that we would one day be recreated into truly good, God-like persons.
- God did not give us joy, but He gave us the hope of joy. When the Son came into being, He did not turn our lives to the joy we long for, but He gave us reason to expect eagerly and confidently that one day such joy will be ours.
- When the Son came, He did not transform our lives and existences so that we were given Life itself, but He came to make it possible for us to have true Life in the age to come. God did not give us Life, but He gave us a personal invitation to enter into Life.
That’s what God has given us for Christmas: an invitation to and the promise of Life in the age to come. Let us accept it and be glad! Let us persevere in our suffering. Let us endure the futility of our present lives. And let us hope in the Life that God has promised us for the age to come. Matthew tells us that Jesus came in order “that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned’” [Matthew 4:14-15, RSV]. Let us who sit in the darkness of this present existence under the sun rejoice; for we know that the light has dawned. The new day is near. Its coming is only a matter of time. As the child must be patient and persevere, waiting for Christmas morning to open his presents, we too must be patient and persevere, waiting for the sun of God’s salvation to reach the full brilliance of noontime.